Funding gap leads to major measles outbreak in Eastern and Southern Africa

18 June 2010

Gaps in the implementation of measles control strategies as a result of inadequate financial commitments from governments and partners have led to a dramatic increase in cases of measles in Eastern and Southern Africa. This shortage in donor support could reverse recent gains that had been made in reducing mortality from this highly contagious disease.

As of mid-June 2010, this latest resurgence has affected more than 47,907 children in 14 countries, resulting in 731 deaths. The most recent confirmed outbreaks are in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

Measles, which is easily spread through coughing and sneezing, can cause severe complications, including pneumonia, diarrhoea, encephalitis and death. Yet a programme of supplemental immunization activities has been found to stem the deadly tide.

To ensure protection from measles outbreaks, at least 90 per cent of all children in each district and at national level need to be vaccinated through routine immunization. Two doses of the vaccine are recommended to ensure immunity, since about 15 per cent of children vaccinated at 9 months, fail to develop immunity from the first dose.

The African Region of the World Health Organization (WHO) had attained 92 per cent reduction in measles mortality between 2000 and 2008 through the implementation of these strategies, with the support from the Measles Initiative. Founded in 2001, the Measles Initiative is led by the American Red Cross, the UN Foundation, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, WHO, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“Measles are easily preventable”, said UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Elhadj As Sy. “In order to sustain our efforts and successes in combating the disease, we urgently need to fill the funding gaps. Otherwise, we will again see more measles deaths in the near future.”

“To eliminate the risk of resurgence”, WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr Luis Gomes Sambo said, “countries must continue follow-up vaccination campaigns every two to four years until their health-care systems can routinely provide two doses of measles vaccination to all children and provide treatment for the disease.”

In the aftermath of that lost opportunity, affected countries are doing what they can – conducting proper outbreak investigations, providing appropriate case management, carrying out response vaccination campaigns to the degree possible, and working to strengthen routine immunization and disease surveillance.

These efforts, in the face of the crisis, are made possible with technical support from UNICEF, WHO and other partners, and generous financial assistance from the Central Emergency Response Fund, the UK Department for International Development, the European Union and other international and local partners. But none of it replaces the value of prevention.

As of 15 June 2010, the toll taken by the current outbreak of measles in Eastern and Southern Africa is as follows: Zimbabwe (8,173 cases, 517 deaths), Zambia (817 cases, 33 deaths), Tanzania (20 cases, 1 death) , Swaziland ( 529 cases, 0 death), South Africa (15,520 cases, 18 deaths), Namibia (3,722 cases, 58 deaths), Mozambique (434 cases, 0 death), Malawi (11,461 cases, 68 deaths), Lesotho (2,406 cases, 28 deaths), Kenya (295 cases, 0 death) Ethiopia (2,108 cases, 8 deaths), Botswana (1,048 cases, 0 death).

News Tracker: Past Stories on This Issue

UN-funding to help immunize 630,000 children against measles in Lesotho

The United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) is giving $646,000 to immunize hundreds of thousands of children in Lesotho, the Southern African country which since January has been grappling with a deadly outbreak of the disease.